I was sitting in my car in the Walmart parking lot watching people walk toward the store. Sometimes when Ann and I go shopping together, and I’ve been in the store too long, I get this claustrophobic otherworldly feeling and I have to just get out of there. It’s silly, I know, to fell claustrophobic when you’re in a giant barn of a building, but that’s how I feel.
But I’m fine when I get outside and I really enjoy watching the shoppers coming and going while I wait for Ann to finish shopping. It gives me hope. You see, I’ve lived long enough to witness some major changes in things. My oldest memories go back to the fifties, a time when the American rural South was largely white bread. Many small towns had signs warning minorities not to let the sun go down on them in their town. Many counties in the state where I live had for more than a century successfully kept minorities out and none of this really began to change until the 1950s.
The people I see in the Walmart parking lot these days are a diverse mix. I watch a group of young college guys heading into the store, some white some black, hanging together. A big Mexican family is getting out of a mini-van. A couple of gay guys walk for their car, one white one black. Another black guy is walking by holding hands with a young white woman. An older Asian lady walks slowly toward the door.
When I’m sitting in my car watching this parade of all kinds of people, it usually dredges up a memory from a yard sale I went to a few years ago. The sale was at the end of a rutted dirt track and when we pulled in, it was obviously a former farming operation. Some of the stuff being sold was old farm equipment, the kind that was pulled by horses or mules. There was lots of old stuff to look at and I remember buying something, but I can’t remember now what it was.
Like the stuff being sold, the woman I bought it from was very old. I ended up talking to her for a while. Older people are repositories of stories and history you often can’t find anywhere else, so when I have a chance, I try to get them to talk about what things used to be like. On that day, the old woman told me a story I’ll never forget.
It turned out she came from a little town called Pettigrew, Arkansas, a little country village to this day, about fifty miles off in the sticks from the bright lights. She started talking about when the railroad first came to Pettigrew. I wish I could remember the exact year, because she still remembered it, but I don’t, but it was sometime early in the twentieth century, maybe around 1910 or 1920.
One day, she said, not long after the trains started running, a young black man decided to ride the train down to Pettigrew just for fun. He got off and walked around the town, just looking around, sightseeing.
“They hung him,” she said. I understood immediately from living with the dark heritage of the South that “they” were the citizens of Pettigrew.
I was shocked. I guess I shouldn’t have been. The Tuskegee Institute recorded 4,473 lynchings, most frequently in the South, between 1882 and 1968.
I knew lynchings took place back then in Arkansas, but I’d never actually talked to someone who’d witnessed one. I could tell from the tone of the woman’s voice that she was haunted by it and probably had been for all the years since.
That pretty much ended our conversation that day. I didn’t know how to respond to her story. I didn’t have any words that would relieve her of that memory or ease its pain.
Now, when I sit in my car and watch the mix of ethnicities and types happily entering and exiting Walmart, I can’t help but think how much things have changed in the last hundred years.
Don’t get me wrong, I know racism and bigotry are still around. I know the South and the rest of the country have a way to go yet. I know intolerance and discrimination are still in some hearts.
But things are better than they used to be. There has been movement in a positive direction. You can walk the streets, no matter what you are, and not worry about being murdered by an angry mob. You can go to college, eat at restaurants, have a job and a career, love who you want, have a good life and not have to live in fear, and I take some comfort in that.